By Mary Whitehouse
Co-operatives are big business. There are 7000 of them in the UK, with 14 million members, employing nearly a quarter of a million people. Altogether, co-ops contribute £36 billion a year* to the UK economy.As consumers, we’re all familiar with co-ops. A lot of us buy our food from them. Some of us even have our funeral arranged with them. But what difference does being a co-operative make to the way businesses work?
1. Member democracy
Anyone who wants to use the services of a co-op can become a member, regardless of social status, gender, political persuasion or religion. All members get a say in the running of the business, and a chance to be on the board of directors. So a co-operative business can genuinely say it is run in the best interests of its customers.
2. Financial accountability
Co-operative members can invest in their co-op and play a key role in helping it grow. Member investment is a vital part of co-operative finance. It’s instrumental in providing the resources for development, product and service innovation.
Members have an emotional and philosophical investment in the business as well as a financial one. So they’re more committed to the long-term success than the average shareholder.
3. Social responsibility
Co-operatives all have a commitment to operating in a socially responsible way. This permeates everything they do and is very important to our customers.
Their employment policies ensure we treat and reward our staff well and give them control over their jobs. They prioritise our contribution to society through the payment of fair taxes. They consider the impact they have on the environment, and how they can help make the world a better place.
All of which makes a co-op an attractive choice for ethically- and socially-conscious customers.
4. Investing in communities and new enterprises
Co-ops invest some of their money in other businesses and in their local communities. For example, The Phone Co-op’s development fund has helped New Internationalist transform into a co-operatively owned publishing venture.
We’ve also invested in Birmingham Student Housing Co-operative, set up by students to challenge the low quality, high-cost accommodation housing near their university.
In addition, our Enterprise Fund offers up to £250 credit to charities, co-ops or sustainable businesses, whether they’re new or existing customers, to help them set up or expand.
5. Stronger together
Co-ops are a community. They like to get along and work with each other. After all, it’s much easier and more rewarding to do business with organisations that think the same way you do.
Co-ops work together through a formal network of local, regional, national and international structures. They have frequently merged with each other, as we are with Midcounties Co-operative, as a way of bringing strength and continuity to their business, and exploiting cross-selling opportunities.
Next week sees the start of Co-operatives Fortnight 2018, celebrating the difference co-operatives make to people’s lives around the world. To find out more about the business of co-ops and their importance to the economy, watch this video from Co-operatives UK.
*Figures from Co-operatives UK 2017